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Friday, 12 November 2010

The Power and Efficacy of Indulgences

What is Northern Ireland's most famous export?

Is it the uber-talented but "haunted by demons" footballer-par-excellence George Best, whose name now graces Belfast’s City Airport?

Or perhaps it is the DeLorean? The car made famous in the Back-To-The-Future trilogy, now derided for its utter uselessness and total inability to do anything, let alone take us back in time, or indeed to deliver us back, to the future.

Or maybe its good old, simple terrorism. Can't find a bin to put your chewing gum in on the tube? These were removed in the 1980’s due to the ease with which bombs could be hidden in them. Ah, the days when terrorists would phone ahead. Now-a-days the 'phone is used to set off the bomb, not to warn against it. How times have changed.

It could well be Bushmills whiskey. Known worldwide, it even made its way in to the popular American TV drama The Wire, where McNulty accuses Bushmills of being "Protestant whiskey". Classically ill-educated, this comment seemed to capture a time when the American culture, under the misguidance of George W Bush, not only used religion to degrade, but insisted on giving inanimate objects religious affectation. It's just whiskey, people. Try enjoying it for its taste and flavour, not for where it is made. Go, figure...

But if Bushmills is to be Protestant, then Master Distiller Colum Egan is their Martin Luther, drawing a new path for his whiskey in a market where ever-increasingly expensive bottles equates to column inches for whichever distillery is next in the line with their "indulgence"... £100,000 Dalmore Trinitas for absolution, anyone? I'll take two. One for now, one for my future sins.

Back in September, I had the pleasure of jumping on the 159 bus to an event hosted by Bowmore, where Islay was "recreated" in the National Geographic Store on Regent Street, taking all the stress (and most of the fun) out of travelling to Islay.

Well, someone is at it again. This time it was the turn of Bushmills, probably the most famous export from Northern Ireland, to try and bring a little piece of their country to The Big Smoke. And what better venue, than an Irish bar in Soho.

This is a far cry from mid-August, when I had the distinct pleasure of visiting Bushmills for a couple of days work. I was there as one of three judges, under the guise of running a whisky blog and as a contributor to Whisky Magazine, on their Make It At Bushmills project: a master-stroke in PR which invited people from around the world to win a vote to represent their nation on a three-day final at Bushmills. The ultimate prize was £5000 spending money, a months work experience at the distillery and, best of all, the chance to make and bottle their own blend under the guidance of the Master Blender Helen Mulholland.

The three days were amazing; a brief Indian summer before the winds and rain that we have today. Sitting on the first day at the Giants Causeway, gazing out towards the Isle of Islay, in bright sunshine with my fellow judges, Irish Singer Songwriter Foy Vance and Rugby legend Keith Wood, surrounded by people passionate about whiskey of all kinds, was a total pleasure.

The winner, Ivan, was from Bulgaria and after his month of training, I wouldn't be surprised to see a triple distilled whisky falling on my doormat from Bulgaria in 3 or 4 years time!

Yet here we are back in rainy London. And this time the people of Bushmills came to visit us!

Helen was our host in London last week, showcasing her new bottling of the Bushmills 21 Year Old. Released in batches of just 6000 bottles each year and retailing at around £120, the triple distilled whiskey is matured for 19 Years in a mix of sherry and bourbon casks, then spending 2 years maturing in ex-Madeira casks. This is the top of the regular Bushmills range in both age and price.

Bushmills – 21 Year Old – 2010 release – 40% - Bottle number 0001

Nose: A fresher nose than expected from a 21 Year Old, with hints of oak and apricot jam, the nose develops with time to raisins soaked in sherry, a touch of fresh mint, some green tea and fresh green herbs. All round refreshing for an older whisky.

Palate: Initial hit of dark chocolate but a low coco content version with develops in to strong toffee notes and eventually ends up as Dandelion & Burdock with an over tone of Wurthers Originals. Sweet but rounded off with good wood spices which are subtle and delicate.

Finish: Coffee notes which come through with quite a bitter edge. Roasted hazelnuts and pickled walnuts with oatcakes and plum chutney. Some cloves and spices.

Overall: This is a solid Irish whisky which is not as sweet as other Madeira finished whisk(e)y that I have had in the past. The nose is wonderful and the palate is well constructed, but for me the finish is lacking the poise and character of the other two sections. It would also have been nice to see this whisky at 43% or even 45% ABV. I’ll stick my neck out and say that the 16 Year Old is their best and most consistent whiskey, but the 21 is not far behind.


All in, I can not fault the Bushmills experience. Part of their raison d'etre is to go from grain to glass at the distillery, with malting, distillation and bottling side-by-side. Having visited and seen some of the guys again in London last week, they not only manage to get the grain into the glass, but the spirit of the distillery too.

Protestant? This stuff is positively Evangelical.